The major event that has influenced my mental health journey was my father’s passing from lung cancer in 2019. His 15 years of fighting it have truly solidified my identity as Filipino-American and affected my coping skills and how I viewed grief/bereavement. It has also influenced my career path as an art therapist and counselor.
My dad’s fight with cancer for so long proves his resiliency, especially since it’s a value in my culture. I struggled a lot with my identity. Seeing up close the Filipino values of resiliency and being with my family has helped me ground myself and my values – if anything, it has solidified something I’ve always questioned or was unsure about. I’ve learned to be more patient and to never really make set plans as life can throw things a lot at you. It’s better not to have expectations but to be adaptable to the ebbs and flows of life. This has dramatically helped with my anxiety and needs for control to protect my feelings.
While my dad was going through chemo, dance was my main outlet to distract myself. I hadn’t danced in 10 years and just went back to it in 2017. With some excellent teachers and choreographers, I went into dance classes learning how to be much more expressive with my movement. It greatly influenced how I approached my art therapy practices – the freeness of expression without judgment. Moving around helped me with my stress, and my dad was always an advocate of dance for me, so him seeing me go to classes made him happy.
His journey also influenced how I connected with the community, specifically the running community. In 2017, I ran twelve 5k charity races, one race each month. I ran my first one with Lungevity – a lung cancer organization – and raised money and awareness for them in honor of my dad, who was still alive at the time. The race was very emotional for me, I even had my ankle injury, but I always pushed through thinking about how my dad continued to fight and didn’t give up. In 2018, I ran two half marathons, and then in 2019, I decided to run the Chicago Marathon in honor of my dad. I kept raising money for Lungevity, and he was so excited to know I was running it. Unfortunately, he passed before the actual race, but I continued training and had a lot of support in raising funds from my boxing gym, art groups, classmates, and so forth. The marathon experience is probably something I won’t ever forget, and I’m continuing onto the NYC marathon and raising more awareness and research funds for lung cancer.
Outside of these physical coping skills, I challenged myself to talk openly about my dad’s experiences deteriorating and grieving his death. The summer after he passed away, I committed to seeing a therapist. She helped me in developing my path and understanding of grieving and acceptance. Now more than ever, I feel a strong tie to mental health, and this experience has helped me in my path as a counseling/art therapists working with cancer patients and their caregivers.
I now work with oncology and stroke/rehabilitation patients in my clinical practicum. Because of this experience, I’ve become interested in researching how grief/bereavement is viewed in different cultures to be a multiculturally competent therapist working with families from all different backgrounds.